Friday 30 September 2016

It's a dead cert: the Donegal firm making funerals greener

Green Coffins Ireland and the Green Graveyard Company provide customers with eco-friendly and natural burial options

Published 12/06/2016 | 02:30

Colin McAteer (right) of Green Graveyard and Niall Deacon, caretaker at Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds, Killane, Co Wexford. Photo: Patrick Browne
Colin McAteer (right) of Green Graveyard and Niall Deacon, caretaker at Woodbrook Natural Burial Grounds, Killane, Co Wexford. Photo: Patrick Browne

Mark Twain once wrote that 'no real estate is permanently valuable but the grave' - yet many of us go through life refusing to consider the practicalities of death until we are forced to do so.

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Following the economic downturn, however, former builder and fourth generation funeral director Colin McAteer began to explore these practicalities in great detail. And Colin soon discovered an emerging market for less conventional and greener burial options in Ireland.

Since setting up Green Coffins Ireland in 2009, Colin from Shannagh, Co Donegal has been at the forefront in the manufacture and supply of hand-crafted and environmentally friendly coffins and urns in Ireland. The Green Coffins Ireland range includes coffins and urns made from willow, water hyacinth, pandanus, mulberry paper and even cardboard.

In 2010 Colin opened Ireland's first natural burial ground at Woodbrook, in Killane, Co Wexford, adding The Green Graveyard Company to his entrepreneurial mix.

"The ideas for both companies actually came around the same time, but the natural graveyard took a bit more time to come together; to find the appropriate ground and get planning permission," Colin explains.

"You always hear people saying about how they would like a simple funeral or that they want to be buried out in a field or at the foot of a tree; our business has been an expansion of that idea."

"It would be my own preference too; cremation is not really for me and the traditional Victorian type cemeteries are very unnatural places in my opinion. Using a natural burial ground is also a way to be sure that what we are leaving behind for future generations won't be scarred by us," Colin adds.

The green graveyard at Woodbrook is not just visually beautiful; it is also an environmentally friendly, cost-efficient solution, with individual burial plots marked by a simple stone on the ground, rather than rows of imposing, vertical headstones. Visitors are able to walk along the pathways surrounded by nature and wildlife; a sacred and natural place where all faiths and none are welcome.

"It is something that really resonates with people," Colin says. "People want that simplicity and that comfort of knowing their families won't be visiting a graveyard per se, that they will actually be going for a walk in more of a woodland park and an awful lot of people are now choosing this option."

With traditional burials dying out somewhat in recent years, due in no small part to the premium prices charged for plots in many busy urban graveyards, the demand for natural burial grounds looks set to rise sharply.

"A lot of the current older generation have their spaces already looked after in an existing graveyard, as their husband or their father or their mother or wife or someone may already be buried there, but it is really the next generation coming up after them - the baby boomer generation - who are going for this option and saying 'this is what we want'," Colin explains.

"And I think if there were more locations like Woodbrook around the country an awful lot more people would choose this option and we would hope to open more natural burial grounds around the country soon.

"Once people see the site they love it and the families who have used the site are so thankful that it is there. There is something very humbling about providing that for people, being able to do something that helps people at such a time," Colin adds.

"The average age of the people buried there isn't generally that old, so a lot of them are survived by their parents and that is difficult, but the peace and quiet of the place makes it very natural and special. A graveyard is a sad place, but what we offer really works for people and gives great comfort."

Ashes may also be interned at Woodbrook and The Green Graveyard Company has assisted a number of families in bringing remains from abroad for final rest here.

"A lot of the time people go to the crematorium, they see it as the handiest thing, but they are handed back these ashes and at the end of the day many will have them sitting about the house because they are not sure what to do with them," Colin says.

"We have had ashes interned in Woodbrook that the families have had for over 20 years and never knew what to do until they saw the peace down there."

Colin also works alongside his father in the family's funeral director business in Shannagh, a background, which has complimented his passion for providing customers with options during what is often a very difficult time.

"Having that growing up, it has made me quite comfortable speaking with people, which I think people who are trying to come into the industry from the outside don't have," he explains. "You need to be used to dealing with families around this time and it makes a lot easier when you have that experience."

However, Colin's father - while supportive - tends to be a little more old-school in his approach.

"I think he thinks some of the ideas are mad," Colin laughs. "So it is very much my thing, but he absolutely loves the natural burial ground in Wexford; now that he has seen it in action, he thinks it is great and he is always there to support me and help out, even though he errs on the side of caution more so."

Green Coffins Ireland was the first of Colin's ventures to take off, inspired by a customer who had enquired about the possibility of a cardboard coffin a number of years beforehand.

"We hadn't been able to source one at that stage, so that would have been in the back of my mind," Colin explains.

"The environmental side of things was also growing massively and even in the last six months it has continued to grow. People are getting more used to seeing these types of coffins now, they are becoming more of a norm and people are more comfortable with them. So eco-coffins are becoming more of an option."

"I think people chose them for a variety of reasons, but certainly the fact that they are less cold looking than the traditional coffin seems to be one of the main driving factors behind the demand," Colin adds.

"The other big challenge at the beginning was convincing funeral directors that people would want these.

"An awful lot of funeral directors took a chance by stocking them at the very beginning and it is something that we will always be very thankful to the funeral industry for doing, because they didn't have to. People would have been happy enough in a lot of cases going with what they had on the shelf. So it has been a slow burner, six years is a long time to still be trying to build a business, but we are certainly getting there at this stage now."

In 2011 with the help of The Leader Funding Programme, The Green Coffin Company ran a willow weaving training programme, which provided training for local people, many of which now work with the company, weaving coffins and urns.

"The reality is that these coffins match the price of a lot of the ordinary coffins out there," Colin admits. "Our material values may be cheaper, but more labour goes into our products, so mostly people choose them because they are eco-friendly and less cold looking."

So what does the future hold?

"There are a lot of things that I want to achieve, in particular I want to open more natural graveyards because they are helping people and it is a great thing to be able to do," Colin answers immediately.

"At the moment both sides of the company are stable and it is a nice situation to be in after six years of hard work.

"When it comes to the coffins I would like to cater more towards the locally grown, locally produced end of things; I would ideally like to have a bit of a showroom up here in Donegal where people could come and see what we do," Colin adds.

"But the most immediate thing for me would be to open more natural burial grounds because the demand is there and it really means a lot to people.

"When we started out there was only about 80 of these burial sites in the UK and now there are over 300 of them there; so it has really exploded and, given the chance, I have no doubt the same would happen here in Ireland."

www.greencoffinsireland.com www.greengraveyard.com

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